The Things They Carried Essay Example

He kept seeing bugs, he kept seeing the death of his friends in his troop. He saw them without limbs with their heads blown off, at times he only had their organs spilling out of them. He kept feeling bugs crawl over his body. Small bugs, huge bugs, biting him. Many bugs, tiny, bugs with many legs, bugs that slithered like worms, beetles, mosquitos, gnats, all following him, after him. These Monster bugs all over him, eating at him, eating at his friends, his troops. There wasn’t anything else to do to make it stop. To make the bugs stop crawling all over & following him, eating at his skin, to make the visions of his fellow troops stop dying.  He couldn’t take it anymore, he shot himself in the foot. (O’Brien, 2004, 222-224). 

In “The Things They Carried,” American soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam had gone through many hardships & found ways to deal with them in unorthodox ways, whether it may be to end the suffering through shooting themselves in the foot because of the bugs like Rat Kiley or singing a lovely song that ironically mimics your fellow soldier’s death like Dave Jensen. The soldiers displayed throughout the book “The Things They Carried” handle dark situations from a place of paranoia, toxic masculinity, ignorance of the war, & overall trauma. Time & time again, these three things loop as an answer to how the Vietnam war destroyed their previous state of mind & line of reason. Prime examples of how trauma, embarrassment, paranoia, & lack of knowledge of the war prior were affecting the way of soldier’s reactions to gruesome scenes can be seen by characters Rat Kiley, Curt Lemon, & Dave Jensen, & I the way they react to situations.

Rat Kiley’s Role

Rat Kiley, the troops medic, who is first  introduced to the readers by exhibiting weird responsive behaviors through chapters “How to tell a True War Story.” In “How to Tell a True War Story” Rat Kiley is seen writing a letter about his best friend (Curt Lemon) to his Lemon’s sister after his death. Thus opening the chapter into a sequence of events opening up to the death of Rat’s friend, & his reaction from it. Curt had died quickly by playing a game with Rat & accidentally setting off a landmine. The troops then scraped away his organs & body from the tree. It was a lot for Rat to handle.

Particularly when considering that Rat was the squadron's certified medic & had also been Curt’s best friend. Standing in the midst of Curt’s death & not being able to do anything to help him, as a medic or a friend took Rat into a dark place & state of mind, it was an overall traumatic experience. The way he had coped was the first sign of irregular behavior. Instead of saying a few words or crying, Rat instead, quoted by O’Brien on pages 78 & 79  had dealt his ways with a water buffalo. “He stepped back & shot it through the knee. The animal did not make a sound. 

It went down hard & got up again, & Rat took careful aim & shot off an ear. He shot the hindquarters & in the little hump at it’s back. He shot twice in the flanks. It wasn’t to kill, it was to hurt.” He watched the buffalo suffer like the men in Junger’s “Combat HIgh” watched the man on the mountain struggle. It was immoral & wrong to do, but the two, mountain troops, & Rat Kiley did so anyway. Though not much is known about how the mountain troops felt or what their situation was like, for Rat Kiley, it was this traumatic experience & lack of knowledge about the war that caused his whole psyche to be ruined. 

Without knowing that this war would be all blood & guts & involving guerilla warfare, Troops & Kiley were forced to witness their comrades die along with them for unreal reasons. It wasn’t combat, it was walking around on a stroll. Without knowing the ways of how Vietnam fought, they opened themselves into a whole new world of trauma & death-defying scenes. The way he responded is almost a response to how Lemon had died. A Viet Cong soldier didn’t end Curt’s life, the land & lack of prior knowledge did. 

So, in turn, he took a small baby buffalo, who was a part of the land & made it suffer much like he did when he picked up his best friend's bodily organs out of a tree.  A medic, certified to keep people from dying, witnessed his best friend die with no way of helping him, or having the prior knowledge of the land to help him is a part of the main reason why the loss of Curt, took a real blow to him. It was this traumatic scene, along with fighting a war with no real objectives that led to his grotesque way of coping, much in the same way it had done for Curt Lemon himself, before his demise. 

No Objective War

The no objective war, under the main topic of not understanding the war,  is another one of reasons for these men to behave in such a way to these gruesome responses to the antics of death, & fear. As there wasn’t anything really to do besides shooting the enemy. There were no specific missions, reasons to be where, or target objective of killing. It was all killed or be killed. Some, like Rat fit under a different way of suffering from the lack of knowledge & understanding of the war to blame for their trauma, but others like Curt Lemon, fits under a different spectrum living in the no objective no real cause war. Through sheer boredom due to the lack of organization of the Vietnam War, Curt was showing bizarre behaviors. One day on Halloween, O’Brien writes that  Curt Lemon became so bored with their lack of task, he painted himself up, put on a ghost mask, had a sack & a gun & went door to door saying ‘Trick or Treat.” to a nearby village. 

O’Brien writes on pages 67 & 68 about how it was something brave to do, & how the guy was completely nuts for doing so. Curt took any fear of Vietnam, with the lack of things to really understand to be able to fear & played it through fun ways, like going stark nude trick or treating. Was it a rational idea, no, but playing in an effortless war, had its bizarre ways with dealing with boredom & fear. For example, most men only went to war, because they feared the resentment of not going. Curt does show resentment & embarrassment, but not for war, but rather a dentist pictured in the chapter “The Dentist.” Here Curt Lemon irrationally deals with his fear of dentists, by marching into the dentist's tent & demanding a tooth be pulled out, right after passing out moments earlier in the dentist office, having to be pulled away by four other men. (O’Brien, 2004, 88) The way he deals with embarrassment goes hand in hand with men at war. 

They respond in immoral & ridiculous ways to prove that they man enough to deal with the situation. With this information, we can draw that Curt Lemon was a man afraid of being a coward, so in hand, he does crazy things, like dresses up for Halloween in nothing but paint & a mask during the war, & demanding a tooth be pulled from his mouth. Both are irrational items that distribute any sort of manhood, but in an act of war, any weakness was seen as pathetic. In a war with no objective & everlasting boredom brought to troops, who are only there through not wanting to be not man enough, like Curt, men do stupid things, & react to serious acts of war like it is some sort of game. 

How Vietnam Appears to Be

Though war, in general, is not a game to be messed with, Vietnam, with it lacks any sort of objectives or proper support, did play out to be a game of sorts. Vietnam with its guerilla warfare trickery, competing with already confused, terrified & unknowing Americans, it also led to the death of Curt Lemon, thus again, leading the main reason to blame for Rat Kiley’s trauma.  Back on the topic of games, an example of this being seen is in the document where Halberstam is in the jungle alone, patrolling when he hears a gunshot. While trying to figure out where it comes from, he soon realizes that the Vietnamese are playing a game with him. 

He found the act disgusting, which really only digs into the fact that the war was really insignificant if it had the time to play games between both sides. Halberstam throughout finding where the shot came from, became very paranoid before he realized it was a game, in the same way, character Dave Jensen had been paranoid after punching Lee Strunk in the nose. Days after Dave had been so paranoid that Lee Strunk would kill him, he responded by shooting a whole magazine of ammunition into the air, before breaking his own nose & asking if the two were even. (O’Brien, 2004, 62-63) Paranoia & realization that there was a war going on had put Dave Jensen over the edge over the course of several days before acting out violently in a strange manner. 

It was seemingly looking as if he was embarrassed for acting out so harshly, paying the consequences of paranoia & silence between him & Strunk to the point it pushed too far. His way of acting continues on into the chapter, “How to Tell a True War Story” Once the death of Curt Lemon is revealed, Dave Jensen is depicted singing the song Lemon Tree, in response to his death whilst cleaning up his organs from the tree. This somewhat sweet way or reacting to such a gruesome death reflects from the craziness of his paranoia in the chapter “Enemies” When Dave had punched Lee Strunk in the nose. A reflection made from his paranoia is that Dave seems to dwell on a lot of things, so when things are quick & to the point, like Curt’s Death, he seems fine. Which in turn isn’t fine at all. Due to building paranoia, & getting to the point of a war where things are like a game, the pressure carries upon soldier’s like Dave is building. Paranoia, & Trauma was written all over Dave to the point where he responded to gruesome scenes with ironic happy singing. It was all unnatural, & anything but orthodox. 


Between all the death & confusion of the Vietnam war, it wasn’t hard for soldiers to fall under bizarre responses to gruesome situations. For Rat Kiley, it was trauma. For Curt Lemon, it was Embarrassment & lack of knowledge of the war & land. For Dave Jensen, it was paranoia. Under all the reasons why the men acted, why they did, all fall under the one underlying factor. That they were fighting a war that didn’t need to be fought. Being exposed to the trauma had broken down the characters till either they died or were mentally destroyed, still fighting, or mentally destroyed trying to get out of fighting. 

The men had dealt with the uncertainty, fear, & death around them in these sometimes surprisingly tender, irreverently funny, or horrifyingly brutal ways due to the underlying factor of suffering a war that no American knew how to fight. Because of it O’Brien wrote true situations of real veterans through Rat, Curt & Dave, who were ruined mentally, dead or alive, & wasn’t ever going to recover from the impact of carrying a war of that size, all due to a war they weren’t prepared for.


Halberstam, D. (2000). one very hot day. In Words of Ages: Witnessing U.S. History Through Literature (323-326). Alexandria, Va. Close Up Foundation.

Junger, S. (2010, May 10). Combat High. Newsweek, 30-33.

O'Brien, T. (2003). The Things They Carried. New York City, New York: Broadway Books



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